On April 14, my review of Maya Angelou’s A Song Flung Up to Heaven appeared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. I finally assessed the book thusly:
In writing that is bad to God-awful, Song is a tell-all that tells nothing in empty phrases and sweeping generalities. Dead metaphors (“sobbing embrace,” “my heart fell in my chest”) and clumsy similes (“like the sound of buffaloes running into each other at rutting time”) are indulged. Twice-told crises (being molested, her son’s auto accident) are milked for residual drama. Extravagant statements come without explication, and schmooze substitutes for action….There is too much coulda shoulda woulda. Unfortunately, the Maya Angelou of A Song Flung Up to Heaven seems small and inauthentic, without ideas, wisdom or vision. Something is being flung up to heaven all right, but it isn’t a song.
The review caused an immediate furor in the African-American community. Subsequently, I was banned from participating in a reading and book signing at Eso Won Books, the leading African-American bookstore in Los Angeles, because of it. Two editors of the Book Review reported that the publication had received a flood of letters, to date unpublished. After months of taking phone calls and letters requesting a response from me on the issues raised, I offer the following:
Critically reviewing the creative efforts of present-day African-American writers, no matter their origin, is a minefield of a task complicated by the social residuals of slavery and the shifting currents in American publishing. Into this twenty-first century, African-Americans are still denied full and open participation in the larger culture absent the confusions and machinations of race. Thus, by nature and necessity, our fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry continue to be repositories for the complaints and resentments harbored against the nation we love, as well as paeans to the courage, fortitude and sacrifice of peers and forebears.
For those who need reminding, books by Negroes and other writers of color were still largely found in the sociology and anthropology sections of libraries and bookstores until the civil rights movement (roughly 1953-69) was well under way. (The glory rush of pride, wonder and dismay I felt whenever I stood before those sections has never been forgotten. Too, in the children’s section, boys’ books were separated from girls’.) In grade school, circa 1954, the year “under God” was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance, works by Negroes were treated as contraband if brought into class or onto the school ground, and were confiscated by white teachers or administrators and the child responsible given demerits or suspended.